Our Favorite Holiday Books and Traditions

December 12, 2013
By: Julie Follansbee
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Julie Follansbee


I answered many times, "Because". 

"Because WHY?". 

"Because that's how we did it when I was growing up."

"But WHY?"

We've all been there. right?

When my son was small, I wanted to make Christmas as magical as it was (and still is!) for me in my childhood.  My parents went to enormous lengths with very little means to make Christmas magic for my 2 sisters, brother and I and I wanted to carry on that tradition. We had a train set, visits from Santa on Christmas Eve to make sure that we were in bed, and once even awoke to no presents at all only to find them under the tree when we returned from Christmas morning Mass.

As I got older (still believing in Santa Claus!) I realized how important that magic was for our whole family.  We all took part in the scheme!  My father loved to make gifts, so he would retire to his workshop sometime after Halloween and we knew not to just pop in or we would spoil the surprise.  My mom did the shopping and took great pains to hide gifts (we later found out that she kept them in the trunk of her car because we came a little too close to discovering the hiding place!) I loved to handcraft gifts too and my sisters baked up a storm.  We all decorated together with my brother taking a special fondness for a paper snowman mural that we always hung on the front door, until my mother thought she wanted to be more elegant and started to decorate our door to look like a package wrapped in shiny foil wrapping paper tied with an enormous ribbon. For the record, my brother has the snowman.

But my son had lots of questions! 
Why do we have a tree in the HOUSE!
Why do we give gifts?
What's with the candy canes, poinsettias and holly?  What in the world is the 12 Days of Christmas about?  AND SANTA???   How does he deliver packages to the whole world in one night?

We started out getting every child's book we could find on any of these subjects and we have a huge pile that we still read today.  The one little book that answers many of the questions (for me at least) is  "Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas" by Ace Collins.  He covers in 195 pages questions children have been asking for years and it really puts in perspective the beautiful roots of our celebration...and solves the mystery...Yes, Virginia there is (and he was a real person!) a Santa Claus".

Here are some of the highlights:

Is Santa Claus Real?
When you think about it, a fat man in a red suit sneaking into people's homes is kind of far fetched but it started out as fact!
St. Nicholas, another name for the big man in the red suit, was a real pperson who lived in the 4th century in what is now Turkey.  He came from a very wealthy family.  His parents died when he was very young and he took all of their wealth and distributed it to the needy.  He devoted his life to Christian service, became a monk at 17 and then a priest and then an Archbishop complete with robes and a miter (pointy hat).  He was reknowned for his generosity and kindness.  One story about Nicholas says that he was ministering to the needy in a small village and heard of a widower with 3 teenage daughters who became so impoverished that they were starving to death so he had no money for a dowery for the daughters to marry.  The widower made plans to sell one daughter into slavery to raise money for a dowery. As the time neared, the father reconsidered and prayed for help.  Most people of the time washed their stockings out each night and hung them by the fire to dry. Nicholas snuck to their house, opened a window and tossed a coin into one of the stockings.  When they awoke the next morning and found the coin, they celebrated the miracle. The oldest daughter was married and then the same happened to the second and then to the third.  People noted that the miracles happened whenever Nicholas was in town and everyone wanted to be a part of the magic. After Clement C. moore's Poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" or "The Night Before Christmas" as it became known, became popular, hanging stockings from the mantel became a Christmas tradition.  Many people put an orange in the stocking to represent the gold that Nicholas gave to the widower.
Another custom stemming form this is St. Nicholas Day, celebrated on the birthday of Nicholas, December 6th where children put their shoes by the door and they are filled with treats.
Great books for kids: "The Night Before Christmas" by Clement C. Moore Illustrated by Jan Brett
"The Night Before Christmas" by Clement Clarke Moore * A POP-UP By Robert Sabuda

350 years ago, mothers used white sugar sticks to pacify their children. In 1670 a choirmaster in Cologne Germany came up with a plan to keep the kids quiet during the very long Nativity service (who hasn't been there!).  He knew that the kids would love the candy sticks because candy was so expensive and it would be a rare treat. The hard candy would last a long time to keep the kids quiet but he was afraid that parents would object to candy in church. So, he asked a local candy maker to bend the white sticks into the shape of a shephards staff and turn it into a lesson for the kids.  The choirmaster explained that the white color represented the sinless life of Christ and that the shape represented the staff of the shephards who came to visit the baby Jesus. Having turned it into a teaching tool, the parents and clergy approved and the kids were quiet the whole service.  Soon it became a staple on trees across Germany but kids had to wait until Epiphany (Jan 6) when the tree was taken down to eat them. 
Another legend is that the candy canes identified Christians during the reign of Oliver Cromwell when Christmas celebrations were banned in England.  It became sort of a secret handshake.
The Candy Cane  was brought to the United States with the immigrants and in 1920 a candy maker in Georgia added colored stripes and then an Indiana candy maker whose brother was a priest created a candy cane with more symbolism by adding 3 red stripes to symbolize the Trinity. He said that the red color symbolized the redeeming blood of Christ and the staff was actually an upside down "J" for Jesus.
A great book for kids is "The legend of the Candy Cane" by Lori Walburg

For more than a thousand years, those living in the darkest Scandanavian countries have brought fir trees into their homes over the winter as a symbol of hope because of it's hardiness to survive the dark, cold winter. Legend has it that on one of St. Boniface's mission trips across Europe, he came across a group of men preparing to sacrifice a small boy to the god Thor beneath a huge oak tree. He commanded them to stop and when they refused, he hit the trunk of the tree with his fist and the tree fell down, revealing a tiny fir tree behind it. He told the men that it was the Tree of Life because it could withstand the winter and represented the eternal life Christ could give them.  He explained that the triangular shape with 3 points represents the Trinity and converted them then and there. Trees began to be hung in homes as tradition and then soon were placed on the ground.  Later, Martin Luther was taking a walk on a very dark December night and saw the stars glistening through the branches of a fir tree and was struck by the beauty. He went home and put candles on his tree and said that the tree represented how God's love wouldn't fade like the tree's color doesn't fade and that the light represents the hope symbolized by Christ's birth and resurrection.  The tree was brought to America by Hessian soldiers during the American Revolution but didn't become really popular until the 1840's, when Prince Albert married Queen Victoria and they put a tree in Windsor Castle and an engraving of the couple with their tree appeared in American newspapers (Ahhh, the influence of celebrities even back then.)
A great book for kids is "The Cobweb Christmas" by Shirley Climo and Illustrated by Joe Lasker

Why is the Poinsettia the Christmas Flower?
As with many of our traditions, this one too begins in another country, but on our continent.  The Poinsettia was revered for it's majesty and beauty and like the fir, it's abilty to withstand harsh winters.  Used for it's medicinal purposes and dyes, it was only handled by religious leaders. It's Aztec name means "flower that withers, mortal flower that perishes like all that is pure".  Each red petal supposedly represented someone who had been sacrificed to the gods.
After Aztec rule ended due to Spanish exploration, missionaries came to the area and the flower was forgotten since it was viewed as decoration and only associated with human sacrifice. When the Franciscan friars came to the area, and decided to set up a manger scene to teach the Christmas Story.  Legend goes that a poor girl named Pepita came to see the manger scene but started to cry because she didn't have a gift for Jesus.  Someone knelt beside her and told her that Jesus would appreciate anything as long as it is given in love.  She went out and picked some green weeds and placed them beside the manger.  The flower miraculously changed before everyone's eyes. into the beautiful Poinsettia. Weeds all around the countryside had been transformed into the red star flower and quickly became known as the symbol of Christmas or "la Flor de Nochebuena"-the flower of the Holy Night. Since the flower begins to bloom in October, it became a symbol of the coming of Christmas. Later it was brought to the U.S. by William Poinsett, Ambassador to Mexico.
A great book for kids is "The Legend of the Poinsettia" retold and illustrated by Tomie dePaola

There are many more stories about holly, and the colors of Christmas, decorations and more.  It's a great book for the season.

For a list of more of our Holiday favorites, click HERE.

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